Dec. 27, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
ANAHEIM, Calif. - Move over Blair White, Kirk Cousins and Darqueze Dennard. Michigan State's pantheon of improbable success stories under head coach Mark Dantonio may have to make room for middle linebacker Kyler Elsworth by the time the Spartans are done playing Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game.
White, of course, is the former walk-on who came on so strong he led MSU in receiving in 2008 and '09 and went on to play for the Indianapolis Colts. All Cousins did is overcome the obscurity he knew in high school as a projected small-college prospect to become arguably the greatest Spartan quarterback of all time. And Dennard, once a relatively unknown recruit out of Dry Branch, Ga., is one game away from completing a stellar career that includes consensus All-American honors and the Jim Thorpe Award.
Elsworth also came to MSU as a walk-on and his penchant for making key plays as a respected career backup earned him a scholarship. However, due to standout middle linebacker Max Bullough's bowl suspension for violating team rules, Elsworth will get a chance to put the finishing touches on one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories in school history.
On Thursday, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Elsworth was among the five players introduced at the Official Rose Bowl Team Welcome hosted by Disneyland.
"I joined the team originally as a fullback," Elsworth said. "I didn't go over to defense till spring ball after the (2009) season as a linebacker. I got on my first special teams my redshirt freshman year basically on kickoff and kickoff return. I earned a scholarship redshirt sophomore year (2011), and there on out my role started increasing with more special teams, getting on goal-line defense and then last year getting on third-down defense.
"You know, if you would have told me five years ago when I signed up to come here that I'd be playing in the Rose Bowl, I would have said that's awesome and I can't wait to be part of that team. But if you would have told me I would have been sitting under the bright lights and maybe going into this game starting, I would have said you're crazy.
"Those are dreams you think never come true, but what better place to have a dream come true than Disneyland, right?"
Elsworth has served as Bullough's understudy for the past two seasons, knowing he would take the place of one of the Big Ten's marquee players only under unusual circumstances. He isn't taking anything for granted and redshirt sophomore Darien Harris and redshirt sophomore Ed Davis, who has performed well at outside linebacker in recent games, are also competing for the job.
"It still has to be earned and I wouldn't want it any other way," Elsworth said. "I think I'm very capable, especially being here (for so long) and being behind Max and seeing how Max does things. I really learned from him and from Greg Jones when he was here.
"I feel very confident to step up and take a bigger role. It's always been about being prepared for when it's going to be my opportunity because you never know. It couldn't be on a bigger stage."
After Dantonio announced Wednesday that Bullough did not accompany the team to Southern California, Elsworth got a little caught up in the possibilities that awaited him.
"At first you think about taking over a job that someone's handled for the past three years, you're trying to fill some big shoes so it's a little overwhelming at first," he said. "But after you sit down, and you're talking with the coaches and looking over the playbook, I realized I've been doing this with the two's (second defense) and I feel like I'm ready for it.
"I prepared myself well and it's not going to be a shock to my system. I'm very comfortable."
Elsworth said he has received words of encouragement from Bullough.
"It's been pretty tough, but I talked to Max and he said he doesn't want us to dwell on that," Elsworth said. "He wants us to focus on our job here at the Rose Bowl, so everyone's kind of put it behind them and we're ready to move forward, have guys step up in leadership spots and take care of business."
It helps that Stanford is a team the lines up and tries to be defenses with physical domination and precision instead of a lot of complicated doo-dads.
"We feel like our defense complements their offense," Elsworth said. "We like to pride ourselves on being a physical, run-stopping team and they like to pride themselves on lining up and saying we're going to run power and we're not going to hide it from you guys.
"I think that benefits us well. Make your reads and play football. It's not too much fancy, try-to-trick you."